Sunday, 23 October 2016

Fist of Legend

Jing Wu Yingxiong; martial arts film, Hong Kong / China, 1994; D: Gordon Chan, S: Jet Li, Chin Siu-ho, Yasuaki Kurata, Shinobu Nakayama

World War II. Parts of China are being annexed by Tokyo because it wants to create Greater Japan. Chinese martial arts student Chen Zhen leaves Japan in order to return to mainland China to continue studying in a Chinese martial arts school, Jingwu, and discovers that his master was poisoned by someone. Chen suspects a rivalling Japanese martial arts school that cooperates with general Fujita in order to close down and erase all Chinese martial arts teachings. However, Chen is in love with Mitsuko, a Japanese girl, and is disappointed that his own people are expelling him because of his relationship. In a giant fist battle, Chen manages to beat Fujita. He also kills Fujita in order to stop him from killing him. A Japanese ambassador manages to fake Chen's death to appease the Japanese army, while Chen escapes.

After "Once Upon a Time in China" film trilogy, "Fist of Legend" definitely consolidated Jet Li as a new star of martial arts on the film stage: his moves, speed and kicks are done with a lot of awe, even when they are slightly exaggerated and stray into "showing off", such as in the scene where the hero Chen is doing push-ups with one hand or breaking a stone with his hand. A lose remake of "Fist of Fury", director Gordon Chan uses the history backdrop as means of headlining the conflict between the Chinese and Japanese martial arts schools, with a few great fight sequences that are worthy of the original (in one scene, Chen stops his fist right in front of a rival's face), yet the story is still slightly flat and chaotic, where all the supporting characters are poorly developed - except maybe for Chen's love, Japanese girl Mitsuko, who loves him despite their different nationalities, which redeems her nation, and which somewhat alleviates some criticism that the Japanese side is presented exclusively negative. Unlike J. Chan, whose battles are choreographed as meticulous as a good ballet, and are thus highly stylistic and clean, Li's battles are more 'down-to-earth', unglamourous and gritty, with several brutal moments, equipped with blood and broken legs. "Fist of Legend" does not ever try overreach its simplistic ambition, and thus works fine as an exciting martial arts film with very good battles.


Friday, 21 October 2016

Inside Out

Inside Out; CGI animated fantasy comedy, USA, 2015; D: Pete Docter, S: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Back, Bill Hader, Richard Kind, Mindy Kaling, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan

Five different emotions - Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger - often clash while trying to find some common ground in the mind and life of a 12-year old girl, Riley. When her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco, Riley has trouble adjusting to her new environment and school. Due to a mistake, Joy and Sadness are ejected from her mind centre and land outside, in the subconscious, which causes imbalance in her behavior, since she can now only feel anger, disgust and fear. Joy and Sadness encounter Bing Bong, Riley's imaginary childhood friend in the form of a pink elephant, and manage to find their way back to the centre, thereby stopping Riley from fleeing to Minnesota and returning home.

"Inside Out" is a movie that enchants you so much in its first 30 minutes that you wish you could love it more than it actually deserves compared to its disappointing last 60 minutes. A blend of "The Numskulls" and "Osmosis Jones", "Inside Out" features a shrill concept of five different emotions clashing with each other while trying to shape the mind - and behavior - inside the head of a 12-year old girl, Riley, and in the opening act, it features a few wildly creative moments, especially refreshing in the irresistibly optimistic (humanoid) emotion of Joy, voiced brilliantly by Amy Poehler. Unfortunately, the problem with the movie is that it simply 'gives up' from this concept after the first 30 minutes, and then strays off into a subplot where Joy and Sadness are accidentally catapulted out of the mind centre, land in the subconscious area and thus have to find their way back to the centre. If you hoped that this "coming back subplot" will not be the whole rest of the film, you are wrong - "Inside Out" spends basically the whole rest of the film just on Joy and Sadness wandering through obscure places in the subconscious, stumbling upon vague, pointless encounters (a pink elephant which is Riley's imaginary friend; a dumpster for forgotten memories; a giant clown...) which is basically just a camouflage for the fact that the writers didn't know where to go with this story, and thus resorted to 'filler' in the form of the abstract.

There is only one inspired moment that justifies this long absence of Joy and Sadness, and that is when the remaining three emotions panic and Disgust pushes Fear to the control panel and says: "There! You be Joy now!" Unfortunately, the rest is just one empty walk to stretch the story into a feature film. Likewise, the finale is highly contrived, trying to impose the notion that *all* emotions are necessary for a human mind, when Sadness proves that she is useful, too. However, they never justified her usefulness. Wouldn't a person without sadness actually be better off? And without anger as well? Wouldn't a life with constant happiness be better? This is where they goofed: had they made Sadness into a different emotion, Love, then it would have all made sense. Not this, though. Near the end, Riley encounters a boy who has a crush on her, but is in fear of telling her. She also fleetingly meets a teenage girl who pretends to be hip, to hide her insecurities. Somehow it is difficult to shake off the impression that these two subplots would have been far more interesting - and cohesive - to develop than just Joy and Sadness 'hopscotch' through the ludicrous realm. Overall, more of a standard amusing film than a one that gives a true insight into the human spirit.


Thursday, 20 October 2016

Hot Pursuit

Hot Pursuit; comedy, USA, 2015; D: Anne Fletcher, S: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Robert Kazinsky

Cooper is an over-the-top ambitious, tomboyish police officer in Texas. She gets a new assignment: to pick up Felipe Riva, and his wife, Daniella, to escort them to a secret testimony against criminal Cortez, and then enlist them to the witness protection programme. However, masked assassins kill Felipe in his home, and thus Cooper and Daniella have to flee in car, since several corrupt police officers work for Cortez and want to shoot them before testimony. After a lot of adventures, Daniella tries to shoot Cortez herself on a party, and in the chaos Cooper shoots Cortez in self-defence.

"Hot Pursuit" is a perfect example of a completely average film, on all fronts. Nothing in it stands out, except maybe the good looks of Sofia Vergara, yet that is irrelevant for the storyline in question, anyway. The action chase comedy subgenre, where two unlikely people have to cooperate in order to travel to a certain place in time, often risking their lives, was done a number of times, and one of the greatest examples, "Midnight Run", simply makes "Hot Pursuit" seem pale in comparison. This film unravels as if the authors made all the events up right on the spot, without any prior inspiration or a point, leaving the impression that any 12-year old could have written this silly, flat story. There is only one inspired joke in the entire film, and it involves a running gag of the news reporting the two runaways, Cooper and Daniella, uglier and uglier in each report, the longer this pursuit is taking, as if taking revenge against them - at first, they report that the authorities are looking for a "5'1 tall police officer accompanied by a 40-year old Latin-American woman", just to in the end report that they are searching for a "4'9 tall police officer and a 50-year old Latin-American woman". Naturally, that one good gag is too little to salvage it. Ironically, the outtakes during closing credits are funnier than anything in the whole film before that. "Hot Pursuit" is a movie equivalent of a glass of water - it is so ordinary, you don't remember it in a few days at all.


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut

Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut; fantasy, USA / UK, 1980 / 2006; D: Richard Donner, S: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Gene Hackman, Sarah Douglas, Jackie Cooper

When Lois Lane discovers his true identity, Superman decides to relinquish his superpowers and become an ordinary human. However, he did that is a bad timing, since just then three super villains from Krypton - Zod, Ursa and Non - arrive in America and decide to take over the world. Gaining back his powers, Superman battles and defeats the villains.

There is little doubt that "Superman II" is an apex of comic-book adaptations and the best live action film featuring the eponymous iconic superhero, yet the question remains: which version? Namely, due to certain disagreements with Salkind producers, the original director of the 1st film, Richard Donner, was replaced with Richard Lester, who completed the film. 26 years after the premiere, Donner managed to reassemble his director's cut from scratch, which shed new perspective on "Superman II": for one, it seems that it wasn't Lester who diverted the storyline towards more comedy, but Donner himself, since there are several fresh and lively comic moments here. For other, just as Zod asks Luthor "Why would we need you? We already have what we want", so does the viewers pose the question: was it necessary to bring Lester into the project when Donner already completed 80% of the film?

This edition shows a film that is practically the same as the 1980 edition, except for a few staggering differences. Among others, Donner's cut shines thanks to the appearance of Marlon Brando: the scene where he puts his arm on Superman's shoulders and brings his powers back is simply pure magic. The pace also seems to be slower, as Donner allows the editing to take more time to linger. However, his edition has two serious flaws in common sense: the first one is when Lois jumps out of the window of the Daily Planet, trying to lure Clark into revealing his identity as Superman and save her. However, Clark runs off superfast to the street, and uses his laser beam - in public - to open a roof on a building, which softens her fall. That nobody would notice a man in suit using laser beams, at broad daylight, in the middle of the rush hour in town, is just plain ridiculous. Lester's cut handled this situation with far more sense, without trampling on common sense and basic logic of the viewers. The other is the ending: here, Superman again uses his flying around Earth to cause the time to go backwards, and thus travels back in time, before Lois discovered his identity. However, this way, the villains are also revived and could again free themselves and attack Earth, whereas the sequence where Clark goes to "settle the score" with the trucker in the snack bar is a jarring continuity error: since the trucker never assaulted him and Lois now that Superman travelled back in time, it seems as if Clark beats up the trucker without any real reason, which makes no sense. Donner was there first - but Lester just gave a tiny bit more logic to the storyline, and his version is thus just a little bit better, among others thanks to more funny scenes, whose lack here is sensed.


Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Knack ...and How to Get It

The Knack... and How to Get It; comedy, UK, 1965; D: Richard Lester, S: Michael Crawford, Ray Brooks, Rita Cushingham, Donal Donnelly

London. Schoolteacher Colin is annoyed that his friend, Tolen, gets to sleep with so many girls, while he is always single. Colin thus asks Tolen to help him out find a girl, but Tolen agrees only on the condition that Colin rents his house for him and his friend, Tom, so that they could bring girls there. One day, a young girl, Nancy, arrives to London in search for the catholic school for girls, but Tolen quickly starts hitting on her and brings her out with his motorcycle to show her the city, while Colin and Tom run after him, fearing he will break Nancy's heart. In the park, Nancy teaches Tolen a lesson by shouting "rape", which causes him to panic. They all return to the house, while Colin and Nancy fall in love.

One of the first British films that spoke up about the life of the 'swinging sixties' as well as the increasing sexual revolution of that time, albeit in a very conservative manner (not a single intercourse scene is shown), "The Knack... and How to Get It" still seems equally as a quirky and witty today as it was back then, and even more harmless and benign than some remembered it. 'Sandwiched' between two films he directed with the Beatles, "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!", director Richard Lester crafts "Knack" in very similar stylistic mode, playing with jump cuts, cinematic techniques (reverse flow of time in some shots) and spontaneous movements and gestures of the characters, reflecting their 'youth spirit', to such an extent that one could easily imagine Lennon, Harrison or Ringo playing the roles of the wacky three heroes, whereas all three films show a unique movement for the British cinema - they are all a comedy version of the French New Wave movement that was big during that time. The sequence where the heroes are pushing their bed on wheels through the streets of London, even stopping during a traffic jam, is a surreal sight, whereas the best joke is the sequence where Nancy decides to teach Tolen a lesson in the park, and thus - even though he didn't even touch her - shouts "Rape!", which causes a quietly hilarious series of jump cuts that show Tolen, Colin and Tom being further and further away in each of the three cuts, almost like a cartoon "backing off". Unfortunately, "Knack" looks a lot like "Six styles in search for a story": it is very chaotic, disorganized, without a plot or a conclusion, with episodic gags unraveling in a manner that the movie could theoretically end at any moment, anyway. A small gem here is Rita Cushingham as Nancy, who probably gave the role of a lifetime thanks to her irresistible charm and allure.


Sunday, 16 October 2016

Police Story 2

Police Story 2; action, Hong Kong / China, 1988; D: Jackie Chan, S: Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Bill Tung, Lam Kwok-Hung, Charlie Cho

After the last adventure, Hong Kong Inspector Kevin Chan is punished by being demoted to a patrol officer for causing massive property damage. When gangster John Ko wants to take revenge on Kevin by threatening his girlfriend May, Kevin beats him up, for which he resigns from the police. However, a new threat overshadows this incident, and thus the police bring back Kevin for the job: an anonymous criminal ring blows up a shopping mall, and threatens to place further bombs if the owner, Fung, doesn't pay them 20 million $. The gangsters kidnap May and strap a bomb on Kevin in order to force him to get the money from the company. However, Kevin manages to free himself from the bomb in a tunnel, goes back to the store, frees May and beats up the criminals.

Released three years after the incredible success of "Police Story", this sequel offers equally as much as the original, and maybe even tops it on the field of humor since it included a few deliciously comical moments involving May (excellent Maggie Cheung). As with most movies of Jackie Chan, "Police Story 2" has the same formula: underwhelming storyline and dialogues, which are then compensated thanks to overwhelming battle stunts and action choreography, some of which are again executed with bravura. The sole storyline where some criminals are blackmailing managers with bombs if they don't get ransom money is nothing new, yet Chan manages to make the story seem engaging and to flow it smoothly, giving just enough to please the genre fans. The finale is arguably not as grand as the finale in the 1st film, yet all action sequences are simply great, anyway, showing Chan in often "impossible" stunts. However, luckily, the character of May manages to almost steal the show with her antics: one of the funniest sequences is the one where the angry May is screaming at Kevin, following him as he retreats into the police station, taking no consideration that they have entered the shower room where several naked officers are startled with her entrance into the room, all culminating in the moment where Kevin locks himself in the toilet - while May breaks the door of the toilet to the left, interrupting on a man sitting on the toilet seat, and climbs up to taunt Kevin from above. Another great moment is when three women police officers beat up a suspect in the interrogation room, playing "good cop-bad cop" to the extreme, much to Kevin's shock of their "feminine power". A few heavy handed or clumsy ideas bother (the villain is a deaf-mute person), yet overall this sequel rises to the occasion to deliver another quality film from Hong Kong cinema.


Saturday, 15 October 2016


Ida; drama, Poland / Denmark / France / UK, 2013; D: Paweł Pawlikowski, S: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Joanna Kulig

Poland after World War II. In a convent, Catholic nun Anna is ordered to find her aunt Wanda by her superior. Anna obliges and meets Wanda, who tells her the secret: Anna's real name is Ida, and she is Jewish, her parents being killed during the Totalitarian regime of the Nazis. Anna and Wanda go on a journey to find the grave of Anna's parents. They finally meet Feliks, who admits that he took over the home of Anna's parents during WWII, and killed them, together with Wanda's son, but left Anna for adoption in the convent. He shows them the grave in the forest. Later, Wanda commits suicide by jumping through the window. Anna tries out alcohol, night life and sex, and later on returns dressed as a nun.

Pawel Pawlikowski's 4th feature length film, "Ida" is an ambitious, minimalistic little film about the search for one's own identity and place in the world. Pawlikowski has a fine sense for captivating camera angles, compact storytelling, whereas the mood of old times of the 60s was nicely conjured up thanks to the aesthetic black and white cinematography. However, that cannot camouflage the notion that "Ida" is more suitable as a short film, since its running time of 78 minutes - although condensed - still seems to suffer from scenes of empty walk and overstretched tangles which do no contribute that much to the overall simple storyline. The author reduces the film to its bare bones, to its essence, but some of the elements could have benefited from more ingenuity and "color". For instance, Agata Trzebuchowska plays the nun heroine with a few energetic moves and gestures, and this could have been more exploited by having her do something more alive, more humorous, to truly come across as a real character. Some of that is found near the end, when she tries out alcohol and hanging around in night clubs, yet only in traces. Overall, "Ida" is a quality film, yet suffers from over-relying on social issues (the consequences of the Holocaust) instead of taking more care of the movie language and style, in order to offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience, more than just a typical European art-drama.


Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four; fantasy, USA, 2015; D: Josh Trank, S: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell

When youngsters Reed and Ben manage to assemble a teleportation device, they are given a scholarship by Mr. Storm to research in his Baxter Foundation institute. Together with Sue and Johnny, they manage to create a stable teleportation device. One night, Reed, Johnny, Ben and Victor secretly use it to teleport themselves into another dimension to investigate it. However, Victor is captured by an unknown green matter, and fails to return back to Earth. The rest, together with Sue, transform and gain superpowers: Ben becomes a rocky humanoid, Sue can become invisible, Johnny can turn into fire and Reed into super elastic body. A year later, Victor returns and decides to destroy Earth because he was left in that dimension. However, the Fantastic Four stop him.

The third movie reboot attempt of the "Fantastic Four" was met with surprisingly uncalled for and exaggerated negative response - among others, it has an average rating of only 3.4/10 on Rotten Tometoes - even though it is a perfectly solid superhero film, not much different than the rest of the films of that subgenre released at that time. Director Josh Trank tried out a different approach, transforming it into a dark drama that focused more on psychological states of the characters, and thus some fans felt cheated - after all, the storyline gave them only one action sequence, set in the finale - yet Nolan did the same thing with "Batman Begins", and thus such a disproportionate reaction of the critics is baffling. Trank didn't do much wrong - the only misguided moment is when Doom uses his powers to cause the government agent's head to explode in his suit - yet he didn't do that much right, either, and that is the "Fantastic Four's" weak link: it simply lacks highlights. The whole movie takes 30 minutes until its storyline finally sets in, and that bland intro is not compensated by some especially fun, memorable or genius scenes later on. The characters and the storyline are insipid, uninspired, sterile and standard, without that much ingenuity or humor to 'twitch' them from that grey existence. What could be said of Sue except that she is from Kosovo? What could be said of Reed or any of his nonexistent personality? One of the few exceptions is the comical race sequence near the start (after the signal, the three cars start driving full speed - except Johnny's which suddenly breaks and stops already at the start), yet those are just small crumbs of delight. Unfortunately, the studio re-edited the film before the premiere, which can be sensed in the abrupt time ellipse half way into the film - how much of the original vision was lost by that move, remains unknown, yet it damaged the film considerably.


Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Thing

The Thing; horror, USA / Canada, 2011; D: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., S: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomson

A Norwegian research base discovers a frozen UFO beneath the ice sheet on Antarctica, and thus American paleontologist Kate and Adam are secretly summoned to help investigate the place, under the supervision of Dr. Sander. They discover an alien in ice and bring it to their base for studying, yet it frees itself and reveals to be an Arthropod-like creature that attacks and kills one crew member. The others react and kill it with a flamethrower in the exterior. However, upon microscoping the dead alien tissue, Kate discovers it is still active - and able to perfectly mimic and copy the cells it absorbs. One by one, the crew members are killed by the alien, and Kate is unsure who of the crew members might be the thing in disguise. In a showdown in the UFO, Kate manages to kill the alien with a bomb. She also toches Carter, suspecting he is the alien, as well.

Almost three decades after the premiere of arguably the scariest horror movie of the 80s, Carpenter's "The Thing", Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. delivered a worthy prequel with his eponymous film that offers enough surprises and strength to flatter the original. One of the improvements is the fact that the authors listened to the complaints aimed at the original, which had no female characters, and thus here gave the leading role to a heroine, Kate (very good Mary Elizabeth Winstead), which gave more color to the cast. The rest stays faithful to the original: it is a 'minimalistic thriller' set in only one location, highlighting the icy landscapes of Antarctica as an allegory for the deprivation of humanity when the heroes are being chased by a shape shifting alien, an evil without a face or form, which some have interpreted as a manifestation of the subconscious evil that stems from the human soul (nationalism, irredentism, greed...). However, some inconsistencies that plagued the 1st film, seem hard to shake off here as well: if the alien perfectly "takes over" and mimics a human, could that character even know he was "taken over"? And if it copies his or her emotions and intellect, does that influence the alien's consciousness as well? Does the alien feel the same feelings of the host? Also, why didn't the alien simply "absorb" one human character quietly, and refuse to transform into a monster so that nobody could know? All these questions are left rather vague and confusing, yet the movie works, regardless. One of the most unbelievable moments are again those involving the shape shifting formations of the alien - in one sequence, one character brings a wounded man inside the pool room, but his hand "comes off" and grabs his shoulder with his tentacles, revealing to be a part of the invasive alien organism - which hint at why the people still talk about "The Thing" today: unlike many other Sci-Fi films, where aliens are always presented humanoid, this one is truly "alien" and foreign to us, with a biology and anatomy completely contrary to any known organism on Earth.


Monday, 10 October 2016

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street; drama, USA, 2013; D: Martin Scorsese, S: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Matthew McConaughey, Katarina Čas

A chronicle of life of Jordan Belfort. In '87, Jordan gets a job as a stockbroker on Wall Street, falling under the influence of Mark who tells him his job is to exploit the greed of buyers and persuade them to buy as many stocks as possible, and never sell them. However, the Black Monday crash leaves Jordan unepmoyed. He finds a job as a stockbroker on Long Island selling worthless "penny stocks" to middle class. However, he decides to sell to the upper class, founds his own company, "Stratton Oakmont" and uses a "pump and dump" scheme to get rich selling stocks. His partner becomes Donnie, while he marries blond Naomi. Jordan is investigated by the FBI for possible fraud, and thus deposits his money in a Swiss bank. He becomes a greedy slob, wasting money on drugs. He is finally arrested by the FBI, pleads guilty in '99 for stock market manipulation, snitches his co-workers and is sentenced to 3 years.

Martin Scorsese's 23rd feature length film, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is one of several films that tackled the topic of finances and the stock market in the early 21st century, offering once again the master director's energetic, dazzling, risky style, yet a one that seems to have become slightly routine and predictable by this time. Basically, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is Scorsese's "Goodfellas" set in the financial world, and the storyline seems to follow the "rise-and-fall-and regret" scheme of the '90 film too closely - just like Henry Hill narrates his own life, from his first entry into the shady business, through the decadence of his business partners, up to his decision to cooperate with the authorities to catch the mafia, so does Jordan Belfort parallel the same old scheme with his life, and this seems like a rehash of old stereotypes, with only a few new ingredients in the recipe. Still, the first third of the film is excellent, a highly electrifying experience that shows Scorsese's morality play that arrives only after a very long period of darkness: take for instance the sequence where Jordan is asking Naomi to marry him - he is not proposing, he is basically buying her. The fact that he dumped his wife for her, a supermodel, and she dumped her boyfriend just to be with a rich 'sugar daddy', already undermines their misguided relationship without any true heart or love. Another good example is the sequence that shows how all of Jordan's employees are selling stocks over the phone to clients according to the same script, even turning pages away, while the camera cuts to another employee to finish the previous one's sentence. For Scorsese, these people became some sort of "financial Goreshists": they have too much money, and yet they want even more, which leads to endless arrogance and egoism, until this world collapses from gluttony, decadence and greed. He of course showed a lot of sequences involving drugs and sex, to demonstrate the appeal of the life of the anti-hero. The sequence where Jordan is drugged and has to crawl to his car and to his home because he is almost immobilised from the substance, is a little bit too much, though, and tells its message in a too explicit, uneven manner. A good, though overlong film that tends to repeat itself in the last third.